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Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Smart moves: exploring the wider benefits of physical activity

One of the most exciting aspects of the recent research into physical activity has been the way it led us to widen our view of the potential benefits.  No one denies, I assume, that physical activity plays a vital role in the development and maintenance of physical health at all stages of life.  Compelling evidence has been gathered over the last 50 years demonstrating its important role in supporting physical well-being and combating a range of serious conditions, including coronary heart disease and obesity.

More recently, though, it is becoming clearer that physical activity positively affects a much wider range of aspects.

The Human Capital Model (HCM) is a particularly interesting approach, and I've been delighted to be involvd with its development.  The HCM draws together the most comprehensive range evidence base so far of benefits of physical activity.  The Model offers an evidence base for the popular Designed to Move movement, which is a call-to-action supported by a community of public, private and civil sector organisations dedicated to ending the growing epidemic of physical inactivity around the world.  The Model is shown below:

In order to build the HCM, a comprehensive review of the beneficial outcomes of physical activity was performed using over 500 published articles.  The result was the identification of six different areas of development or ‘capitals’.  Each of these six areas defines a set of outcomes that underpin human well-being and success:
  1. Physical Capital:  The direct benefits of physical activity to physical health and functioning, including the prevention and limiting of non-communicable diseases and conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity.
  2. Emotional Capital:  The psychological and mental health benefits associated with physical activity, including increased levels of self-esteem and self efficacy, reduced depression and anxiety, reduced social isolation, and a greater ability to process stressful events.
  3. Individual Capital:  The elements of a person’s character—e.g., life skills, interpersonal skills, values.  Reported benefits in this area include teamwork, co-operation, moral and social responsibility, and resilience.
  4. Social Capital:  The outcomes that arise when networks between people, groups, organizations, and civil society are strengthened because of participation in group-based physical activity, play, or competitive sports. This domain of capital includes the development of both pro-social behaviors and social inclusion through participation in physical activity.
  5. Intellectual Capital: The cognitive and educational gains that are increasingly linked to participation in physical activity. This feature of capital focuses particularly on the effects of regular exercise on cognitive functioning, on subject-specific performance at school, and on general academic achievement.
  6. Financial Capital: Gains in terms of earning power, job performance, productivity and job attainment, along with reduced costs of health care and absenteeism that are linked to regular physical activity participation.

These beneficial outcomes represent a valuable investment in terms of both quality and quantity of life. Moreover, the scope of this investment (across six capital domains) is much broader than what is normally considered with regard to physical activity promotion for all. Ultimately, the HCM is a call to consider investments in physical activity as powerful catalysts for personal and social change.

The complete model and supporting evidence base are presented and discussed more thoroughly in the whitepaper, Physical Activity: An Underestimated Investment in Human Capital? (Bailey, Hillman, Arent, & Petitpas, 2013), which is freely available from here.

Supporting material, including a review of the literature, are available from the Designed to Move website.

Both Designed to Move and the HCM have attracted a great deal of attention - from politicians, the media, sports administrators, teachers, coaches and parents - and the most frequently asked questions seem to relate to one topic: education.  Politicians and teachers want to know if physical activity will support or interfere with student grades.  Coaches and sports teachers are keen to find out if the latest research strengthens the case for activity.  And parents just want to know what's best for their children.

In light of this interest, I have recently published a new article in the Aspetar Sports Medicine Journal on this topic, and it is freely available from here.

I'd be delighted to hear your thoughts on this very topical issue.  Does introducing talk of grades and exams into the physical activity agenda make the cases stronger? Or does it risk confusing the issue with tangential concerns?


What do you think?